Sagan, Dorion 1959-

views updated

SAGAN, Dorion 1959-

PERSONAL: Born March 17, 1959, in Madison, WI; son of Carl Edward (an astronomer) and Lynn Petra (a biologist; maiden name, Alexander) Sagan; married Marjorie Lynn Baker, March 24, 1984 (divorced, 1987); children: Tonio Jerome. Education: University of Massachusetts—Amherst, B.A. (European history), 1981. Politics: Independent. Religion: "Gnostic-agnostic." Hobbies and other interests: Sleight of hand magic, basketball.

ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 671, Amherst, MA 01004-0671. Agent—John Brockman Associates, Inc., 5 East 59th St., 8th Fl., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Magician, freelance editor, teacher, consultant, speaker, trader, interviewer, appraiser, and indexer. Clerical worker in planetary biology and microbial ecology at National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility in San Jose, CA, 1984; technical writer for Applied Polymer Technology, 1985-86; general partner of Sciencewriters, Amherst, MA.

AWARDS, HONORS: Distinguished Achievement Award for excellence in educational journalism from Educational Press Association of America, 1986, for article "The Riddle of Sex."

WRITINGS:

(With mother, Lynn Margulis) Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1997.

(With Lynn Margulis) Origins of Sex, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1986.

(With Lynn Margulis) The Microcosmos Coloring Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (Boston, MA), 1988.

(With Lynn Margulis) Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World, Harcourt (Boston, MA), 1988.

(With Lynn Margulis) Biospheres from Earth to Space, Enslow (Hillside, NJ), 1989.

Biospheres: Metamorphosis of Planet Earth, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1990.

(With Lynn Margulis) Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Lynn Margulis) What Is Sex?, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

(With Lynn Margulis) What Is Life?, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1995.

(With Lynn Margulis) Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution, Copernicus (New York, NY), 1997.

(With Eric D. Schneider) Cooking with Jesus: From the Primal Brew to the Last Brunch, BookSurge (Charleston, SC), 2001.

(With Lynn Margulis) Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (includes sound recording), Basic Books (New York, NY), 2002.

(With John R. Skoyles) Up from Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 2002.

(With others) Within the Stone: Nature's Abstract Rock Art, photographs by Bill Atkinson, BrownTrout Press (San Francisco, CA), 2004.

(With Eric D. Schneider) Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2005.

Author of foreword to Heretics: The Bloody History of the Christian Church, by Sumner Davis, 1stBooks Library, 2002. Contributor to periodicals, including Omni, Skeptical Inquirer, New York Times Book Review, Natural History, Wired, Cabinet, Sciences, Bostonian, Whole Earth Review, Environmentalist, Earthwatch, and Ecologist.

SIDELIGHTS: Dorion Sagan is an accomplished science writer who has often aided his biologist mother, Lynn Margulis, to produce works that have intrigued readers. Sagan, the son of the renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, once told CA about his love of literature and the written word: "I want to apply my knowledge of sleight-of-hand to literature, both in the nonfiction relationship of perception to science and art, and in the fictional context of exploring point of view, metafiction, and 'magical' protagonists. Bernard De Voto's World of Fiction fascinates me: I can't wait to finish my nonfiction projects so that I can devote myself to what I consider to be fiction's superior latitude for exploring the truth, which after all is conditional—a species of lie. I am also interested in forcing a rapprochement between science writing and continental philosophy." Sagan has put his creative talents to work in his science writing, honing a style that has made for lively writing yet has sometimes exasperated the scientific establishment.

When asked how he became interested in writing, Sagan told CA that it "probably was a combination of my father's 'um-less' speech, which I first heard in the womb, and my young mother's beautiful voice, which regaled my child's mind with The Jungle Book, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the Greek myths, and other classics."

Reflecting on the sources of inspiration for his work, the author remarked to CA, "Everything: I see myself as a kind of lens. I am attuned to art, philosophy, and the perception/deception medium (i.e. magic). I'm a big fan of a large variety of books, from The Gift of Death, by Jacques Derrida, to the confessional fiction of Hamsun, Fante, and Bukowski. I tend to like books, whether fiction, philosophy, or other, that are 'true,' even if classified as nonfiction. I use art, history, and philosophy to multidimensionalize and 'place' science and science as an anchor and reality check for art."

In several works Margulis and Sagan discuss sex—that is, the mixing of genes, not just reproduction—by organisms. Each chapter of What Is Sex? contains "colorful insights, wild guesses, and just-so stories that are anchored in biological fact but allowed to float just out of reach of convincing proof," wrote Boston Globe's Chet Raymo. "This may annoy some readers who will find it all a little gushy, but others will love it. Part science, part philosophy, occasionally poetic, What Is Sex? is a roller-coaster ride through the history of sex on earth." Calling the work "an exuberant meditation on life's place in the universe," Washington Post reviewer Susan Okie added, "This is science writing of a rare kind, a bold synthesis that draws on biology and physics."

The duo continued to write about this topic in their 1991 offering, Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality. In this work the authors discuss the bacterial origin of sex and how the reproductive process varies in species and has led over time to different developments in the creatures under discussion. Reviews of the work varied, with a Publishers Weekly critic calling it an "eloquent, stimulating exploration" that sometimes "succumbs to reductionism," and W. Lener of Choice noting, "Although the book's information is generally accurate, there are errors." Paul S. Boyer had more serious criticism to offer in a Bio-Science review. He faulted the authors' use of "poetic imagery [that] obscures much of the scientific insight" and anthropomorphic imagery. While Boyer cited a few minor errors, such as incomplete or missing citations, his main complaint was the use of "unbridled speculation." According to Boyer, major points are couched in terms that make it difficult for the reader to discern known fact from supposition.

A professor and researcher, Margulis is a specialist in biology at the University of Massachusetts. Many of her works, coauthored with Sagan, deal with her area of specialization, including the 1989 title Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World, in which they introduce readers to the rich world of microbes. Praising this work as "fascinating, easy to read, deeply thorough," and "practical as a field guide" was Whole Earth Review's Kevin Kelly. In Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, they propose an alternative to the widely believed theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin. Margulis's theory is known as symbiosis-cooperation. In it, instead of using domination by the most fit, single-celled organisms gradually combine over time to create multi-celled organisms. "This provocative book will undoubtedly do much to disabuse readers of any anthropocentric notions," wrote William J. Hagan, Jr., in Isis. In the view of Lee Dembart of the Los Angeles Times, Margulis and Sagan's explanation of microbial evolution is "a fascinating, engrossing, superbly written account of how the conditions of the primitive Earth affected and were affected by the mechanisms of evolving forms of life and how those solutions remain with us today." Despite his enthusiasm for the work, Dembart also expressed some reservations: "This book's weakness is that it does not distinguish clearly between what is known and what the authors are filling in. They have put it all together in a virtually seamless web that makes most of their speculations sound like fact. For most of the book, this is merely annoying. In the last chapter, however, . . . they go off the deep end completely, but you wouldn't know it by the tone." "In their ambitious attempt to examine four billion years of evolution, Margulis and Sagan provide a compelling statement of the long-range goals of current research in the field," Hagan concluded. Margulis and Sagan defended this theory even more vigorously in their 2002 title, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, which Booklist's Gilbert Taylor called "polemical and provocative."

Beginning in the 1980s, Margulis joined James Love-lock in advancing the idea—dubbed the Gaia hypothesis—that the earth and its atmosphere together may be considered a self-regulating organism. Several works by Sagan and Margulis examine this thesis, including Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution, and What Is Life? In the first, a collection of essays "written in a lively and enthusiastic style," to quote Choice's S. M. Paracer, the authors discuss the Gaia hypothesis. What Is Life? is a large format, highly illustrated book that demonstrates the wide variety of life on the planet, including one-celled organisms, plants, and animals. It simultaneously presents an alternate perspective on life and evolution, which, according to John D. Helmann writing in Quarterly Review of Biology, "will make interesting reading for those already familiar with the major themes of modern biological understanding. However, the complexity of the language, the frequent digressions, and the metaphysical and philosophical overtones will make much of the material quite difficult for the uninitiated."

In 2002 Sagan teamed up with John R. Skoyles to write Up from Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, an account of the evolution of human intelligence that forms a sequel to Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden. Alan Bilsborough of the Times Higher Education Supplement noted that the "book is generally clearly and engagingly written, though sometimes the anecdotes that begin the chapters are distracting and the work would have benefited from illustrations."

Hoping his books will "inform and enchant," Sagan described himself to CA as "one of those marked souls who can't not write. I have many unfinished projects all vying for my attention at various levels of obsessive compulsion. Sometimes I mine old projects, or 'cannibalize' them for new ones. But, although I have written mostly science books, I am more like an artist in that I prefer to always engage new material, or old material in new ways, rather than simply presenting information."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

BioScience, September, 1992, Paul S. Boyer, review of Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality, pp. 633-634.

Booklist, September 15, 1988, review of Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World, p. 107; June 15, 1989, review of Biospheres from Earth to Space, p. 1827; September 1, 1995, Gilbert Taylor, review of What Is Life?, p. 23; November 1, 1997, Gilbert Taylor, review of What Is Sex?, p. 443; June 1, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, pp. 1655-1656.

Bookwatch, June, 1990, review of Biospheres: Metamorphosis of Planet Earth, p. 4.

Boston Globe, December 28, 1997, Chet Raymo, "The Itch of Ecstasy," review of What Is Sex?, p. L1.

Choice, September, 1990, F. F. Flint, review of Biospheres; April, 1992, W. Lener, review of Mystery Dance; March, 1996, W. Lener, review of What Is Life?; February, 1998, S. M. Paracer, review of Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution,; September, 1998, G. Stevens, review of What Is Sex?; January, 2003, S. I. Perloe, review of Up from Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence.

Futurist, March, 1991, review of Biospheres, p. 38.

Isis, March, 1987, William J. Hagan, Jr., review of Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution, pp. 106-107.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1990, review of Biospheres, p. 167; May 15, 2002, review of Acquiring Genomes, pp. 718-719.

Library Journal, March 15, 1990, review of Biospheres, p. 109.

Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1986, Lee Dembart, review of Microcosmos, p. 4; July 23, 1991, John Wilkes, "Stripping Down to the Core of Sexuality," review of Mystery Dance, p. 2.

New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, review of Biospheres from Earth to Space, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, January 12, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Biospheres, p. 57; June 14, 1991, review of Mystery Dance, p. 50; August 28, 1995, review of What Is Life?, p. 99; October 27, 1997, review of What Is Sex? p. 62; April 22, 2002, review of Up from Dragons, pp. 59-60.

Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 1988, Michael T. Ghiselin, review of Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, pp. 80-81; March, 1997, John D. Helmann, review of What Is Life?, pp. 62-63.

School Library Journal, January, 1989, review of Garden of Microbial Delights, p. 108; May, 1989, review of Biospheres from Earth to Space, p. 132.

Science Books & Films, May, 1989, review of Biospheres from Earth to Space, p. 291; September, 1990, review of Biospheres from Earth to Space, p. 38.

Science News, February 14, 1998, Cait Anthony, review of What Is Sex?, p. 98; October 26, 2002, review of Acquiring Genomes, p. 271.

SciTech Book News, October, 1988, review of Garden of Microbial Delights, p. 19.

Times Higher Education Supplement, July 3, 1998, Lewis Wolpert, "Gaian Takes on Darwin," review of Slanted Truths; April 25, 2003, Alan Bilsborough, "Why We Changed Our Minds," review of Up from Dragons.

Washington Post, March 29, 1998, Susan Okie, review of What Is Sex?, p. X06; October 20, 2002, Susan Okie, review of Acquiring Genomes, p. T10.

Whole Earth, fall, 1989, Kevin Kelly, review of Garden of Microbial Delights, p. 64; summer, 1997, Peter Warshall, reviews of Slanted Truths and Gaia to Microcosm, p. 73; fall, 1999, Stewart Brand, review of What Is Life? p. 71; fall, 2000, review of Gaia to Microcosm, p. 44.*